Bonjour, ich heisse Anna. Hallo, je m’appelle Anna. Either one works. What’s important is the language clash. During my weekend in Strasburg – or Strasbourg – and its surrounding region, French and German seemed to merge in my head, invading each others’ sentences and expressions, confusing my cultural and linguistic reference points.
Indeed, I think that if the region of Alsace had any feelings, it would feel similarly confused. Walking through the streets of its capital, I knew in my mind that the region has been French for decades, since the end of the Second World War, but I could perceive its burgeoning German undertone, evident in both its population and in its infrastructure.
Alsace – as well as its neighbor Lorraine – has passed back and forth between German and French hands for centuries, a toss-around that can be felt in its distinctive character. I remember writing a 10-page paper for a German class on the Franco-German identity of Alsace as expressed through language. My conclusion involved an underlying sense of German belonging, crushed by the French state’s will to impose French language in the education system. The result? A complicated network of rejection, acceptance and fluid transition between the two, and a distinct sense of difference and separation from both countries. My trip was the chance to verify my theories.
After a sweaty, crammed overnight train, complete with crying baby and lack of pajamas, I finally made it to Strasburg, where I traipsed from the train station to my Couchsurfing host’s home, a gorgeous apartment a short walk from the city center. A quick shower, a brush with my host’s kitties, and I was off to the cathedral. Germany hit me hard in the face. But Germany was all the way on the other side of the border, marked by the Rhine river.
First, architecture. The “colombage”-style architecture, with wooden planks supporting and decorating each façade, and steep roofs to avoid cave-ins from excessive snow, immediately made me think I was somewhere in the Tyrol, drinking a beer and wearing a durndel.
Second, language. The locals spoke French, the tourists (mostly) spoke German. All of the streets were marked both in both French and Alsatian, a language much closer to German than to French. And I even had the opportunity to eavesdrop on an older couple speaking Alsatian to each other. My host was bilingual. And I was bilingual, jumping from one language to the other. One minute I was speaking French to a shopkeeper, the other I was asking a German family to take a photo of my at the top of Notre Dame cathedral.
Third, food. Lots and lots of potatoes and meats – sausages and fish, all piled together into a mouth-watering choucroute. And pastries and pretzels: Kuegelhopf and Bretzeln, of which I ate an embarrassing number. Not to mention the delicious sausages in my host’s fridge and the meals she cooked. I’m glad I don’t own a scale.
I’m not sure exactly how to translate this socio-linguistic mayhem, but I would conclude that Alsace remains, in a way, a state of its own, independent from the forced cookie-cutter culture that a nation tends unfortunately to impose. In any case, I was enthralled by the urban and rural beauty of this region and of its people.